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     Volume 6 Issue 9 | March 9, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Women in a Make-Believe World

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Television has become a major tool for showing women in stereotypical roles.

Imagine a day with no newspaper, no television, not one billboard looming over you no matter where you may be. It's that difficult to get away from the media. Be it the news, your favourite drama serial, a movie with a friend or four glowing Aishwarya Rais smiling down at you from four huge billboards together, no one is left untouched by the media today. It goes beyond entertainment and even beyond selling products and services.

The media today sells values and ideas, ideals and idols; images of good and bad, success and failure, normalcy and deviance. From setting fashion trends to mindsets, it plays a role in almost everything we do. It is a major agent of socialisation and this is not limited to children being affected by violence and sex on television. Adults are also influenced by what they see in the media. Besides entertaining and providing information, the media also serves to reinforce already existing values and, often, stereotypes. This is especially true with regards to the portrayal of women in the media of a patriarchal society.

“Beauty seems to be the main concern of women in the media,” says Shahana Alam, a homemaker. “Even while doing laundry, they are made-up as if going to a party.”

“The portrayal of women in dramas and films is also generally negative,” says Alam. “Men invariably dominate and this is so common -- in reality and in the media -- that this is what seems natural and such values are further strengthened in people's minds.”

Very few women don't want to be as thin, as fair, as beautiful and as successful as the model or actress they see on television or on the huge billboards ruling the city. Very few men, too, don't want their significant others to look like them. Or be them -- the perfect homemaker -- cooking, cleaning and caring for their families all day long; dependent on their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. So what if they seem to have nothing better to do than bicker and gossip? Better than being the lonely professional with no life, the woman gone astray or the victim of harassment or rape.

Billboards all over the city project the idea that women must always strive to standards of beauty dictated by society.

Media research has shown the portrayal of women to be more or less of two types: the perfectly good woman and the wholly evil woman. Women are either the devoted wife and mother, chaste and innocent; or they are victims, vamps and sex workers, physically wronged or morally wrong. They are rarely shown as professionals. The only constructive things they engage in doing are happily cooking meal after meal and frenziedly cleaning the ring around the shirt collars of the men folk. Even here their success is attributed to packaged spices and detergents. Generation after generation, grandmother, mother and daughter reap the benefits of the magic detergent, hair oil or beauty soap. But, at the end of the day, if the tea is just right, the cooking to the mother-in-law's liking and the husband looks spic and span in his ghostly white shirt, the woman is satisfied with her life and is rated “100 percent” by her husband and son (at least in one advertisement for using the best salt). Fie on the woman whose husband or son is more grimy than her neighbours'!

The second category of women, present in some dramas and most films is the evil vamp. They are their own enemies, finding fault with each other, stealing other women's boyfriends and husbands or depicted as sensuous bar dancers and sex workers. Once in a while in Bangla films we see the rebellious woman, clad in black leather, whip in hand, fighting against all odds, all evil and all men. But this too is spurred by the wrongful acts of men -- betrayal, rape, etc. Dramas are less exciting, where women are limited to the characters of doting mother, devoted wife and darling daughter.

Indeed, women in the media are most often presented in relation to the men in their lives, always based on their gender identities as women. Media researcher and writer Margaret Gallagher in her book Unequal Opportunities: the case of women and the media terms this the “virgin-whore” dichotomy, saying that it is on women's sex that their individual identities and social acceptance is based. The “virgin” imagery here, says Gallagher, runs a consistent stress on subordination, sacrifice and purity and the “whore” imagery is connected with cruelty, inhumanity, insensitivity and unscrupulousness. The roles are propagated by the notion of rewards and punishments -- if the woman behaves well, she will be given the love of her man; if she behaves badly, she will be alone, unloved and castigated.

Also according to Gallagher, passivity and emotional dependence are rewarded in women, while characteristics which are defined as “good” in men -- such as decisiveness, independence, forcefulness and tenacity -- are defined as “bad” in women. According to the fictional reality of the mass media then, goes on Gallagher, women are actually rewarded for ineffectuality than for actively controlling their lives. They are shown as professionally and emotionally subordinate to men, vain and indulging in fantasies and escapism. Women are shown as dependent, foolish, indecisive, deceitful, incompetent and so on with such flaws often being presented as being desirable or even funny.

In most television dramas, women actors are invariably made to play the role of mother, daughter or wife.

In advertisements, women are most often shown as “product users” or those depicted primarily as using the product while men are more often shown as authorities or characters “with all the facts” about the product being advertised. It is almost always women who do ads for “home products” such as foodstuffs, body care, household items, pet care, toys and medication while men mostly advertise “away products” such as travel, banks/money, restaurants and cars.

Remember the ad where a man tries to win over his girlfriend with the promise of vacations abroad, a new sari every month, a red rose every day? The woman is not easily swayed, but ultimately becomes elated when he offers her a home in the particular housing complex being advertised. Or the ad for a cell phone operator where a woman wanders around with absolutely nothing to do all day but wait for her husband to call her and can hardly believe her ears when he offers to take her on a trip abroad. Men are always the providers and women the provided-for.

This is not always shown blatantly either. We are so used to seeing men bigger and taller than women, that the fact that women are always looking up at men and men are looking down at women never strikes us as odd. Neither does it occur to us that the continuous dismemberment of women in the media -- showing only her long, sexy legs, cleavage or navel -- makes it seem as if that's all a woman possesses and there are no brains connected to her body.

In many cases, women are directly objectified, becoming products along with those being advertised. And so the hefty, half-reclining woman by a table fan, or the woman, who after receiving a mysterious phone call goes straight for a fluffy, luscious-looking bubble bath, spends the whole day decking herself up and is picked up in the evening by her mystery man for a date.

Such images are so common however, that, to many, this is what seems normal and acceptable.

Samiul Haque believes that women in our media are not commoditised as much as they are in the Western world. “But you still have to show some good-looking women in ads,” he says, “otherwise people will just turn away or switch off the television.”

“Women are often used even where they are not needed,” admits Haque, “for example in ads for men's products. But that's because everyone likes to see a pretty face. There's nothing wrong with that, it's natural.”

“But the face shouldn't become more important than the product,” Haque adds. “Respect towards women must be maintained. Advertisers should concentrate on selling their products and services, not the woman's looks.”

Bangladeshi films are notorious for showing women as sex objects.

According to Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, media portrayals of women broadly fall into two categories: marginal and stereotypical.

“Women are rarely seen in the news, talk shows and interviews and are overwhelmingly present in entertainment programmes,” says Dr. Nasreen. “They are included in the news coverage only when they are victims or sensual. With a few exceptions, television dramas usually portray women in some limited roles of emotional mothers, dependent wives, decorative fiancées.”

The objectification and commoditisation of women are most apparent in advertisements and mainstream movie, says Nasreen. “Women's sexuality and physical attributes are used as baits through which products are advertised. Moreover, the Bangladesh film industry has attained notoriety for being vulgar by focusing on women as sex objects.”

Coverage on issues related to the media has improved and increased relatively, says Dr. Nasreen. However, results of several studies show that in spite of some quantitative increase in publishing women-related issues, very little qualitative progress has been made in terms of women's portrayal in the media. “Conversely,” says the media analyst, “the data show a worsening trend in some cases, particularly in regard to exploitation of women's images as gratifying commodity in advertisements and as sex objects and victim to male-violence in mainstream cinema.”

According to Dr. Nasreen, the media does not reflect a mirror image of society, rather, it focuses on the values and expectations of the dominant class. “Ours is no doubt a very patriarchal society, where women's contribution and achievements are usually not recognised. And the variation of women's voices are never heard. The phenomenal promotion of consumerism in recent years has worsened the situation.”

“We live in a mass-mediated society today,” says Dr. Nasreen, “where mass media are powerful agents of socialisation transmitting attitudes, perceptions, images and beliefs. If the media continues to portray women in traditional roles, as victims of violence or sex objects, then I am afraid that there is a very slight chance that we are going to achieve gender equality. While women's views and achievements are omitted, it implies that they are unimportant and virtually invisible members of society.”

Dr. Gitiara Nasreen believes that as powerful socialising agents, the media sets the agenda of the society. “Women in the media are primarily depicted in a narrowly limited range of roles, which is quite unrepresentative of the wide spectrum of interests, concerns and behaviours of women in contemporary Bangladeshi society.”

“If women continue to see that their only work is to beautify themselves, decorate their homes and cook,” says Dr. Nasreen, “it becomes difficult to see themselves in roles other than these.” With the free flow of information crossing through borders, teenage girls of Bangladesh are now growing up with Hollywood/Bollywood idols, she says. “But they are not shown the role models they really need to see, who posses qualities like knowledge, intelligence, leadership, etc.” Also, the overwhelming exposure of media reports on violence against women generates fear and further curtails women's mobility. “Women's submissive acceptance of physical violence and cruelty is often presented as a natural expression of 'angry' men. Such depictions naturalise violence against women.”

Undermining women leads to an increase in violence, child mortality and a resulting discrepancy in population growth rates, ultimately leading to an unhealthy society, says Nasreen.

So can women be portrayed more positively in the media? Dr. Nasreen says that the media should depict the various roles of women in society, their accomplishments as well as their struggles. “Following our National Policy on Women and National Plan of Action, necessary measures should be taken to formulate and implement a comprehensive gender-sensitive media policy and to set up mechanisms to supervise the implementation and enforcement of this policy.”

Policies are one way of countering the trend of typecasting women. But where the media plays such a vital role in making people think the way they do and changing the way they think, the onus lies on the people in the media to give the right messages. It is their awareness and conscious actions that will stop the same old images of women from being shown repeatedly, reinforcing negative stereotypes which undermine women.

What the Celebs Have To Say…

“Due to the open market economy, the media has become very powerful in the last two decades or so,” says actress and social activist Sara Zaker, “From advertising to politics, it has become a powerful tool for changing minds, behaviour, patterns of thinking.”

“This open market economy, however, limits women to stereotyped roles and the role of women in the media today is weaker than it was 20 years ago,” says Zaker. “Today's woman is perfect-looking -- thin, beautiful, with a perfect body.”

Before, says Zaker, there weren't as many beauty contests, soap operas or advertisements for cosmetics, toiletries, etc. Now, even in talent hunt shows you can see how, as the candidates move up, they become more and more glamorous. “Not only does the media reinforce these values,” she says, “but it also pressurises women to strive to be beautiful by following media trends.”

“But the strong voices of women are not heard in the media,” Zaker points out, “and her significant contributions to society are not visible. Garment workers, success stories of women who have taken microcredit are not heard. Some journalists and news presenters have made a name for themselves, but there are numerous other social and political activists, businesswomen, etc., who are still not visible. Women have done a lot in every field, but their presence is least in the media.”

“To counter this,” says Sara Zaker, “we have to come out of our patriarchal system. We need more women producers to bring about change for women.”

Model and actress Shrabastee Tinni agrees that it is up to women to educate themselves and prove their worth.

“It's true that women joining our media are chosen based on their looks rather than their talent or qualifications,” says Tinni. “Women are often portrayed as sex objects. The more glamorous you are, the more sponsors you get.”

“But we also have great talents like Subarna Mustafa, Bipasha Hayat, Afsana Mimi, etc., many of whom have gone on to direct and produce and have set examples.”

Tinni recognises the fact that what celebrities do often influences their audience. After her popular “Shundoritoma” ad, for example, many people began to see her as a fashion icon, imitating her dress and hairstyle and her casual style of dialogue delivery.

Actress and talk show host Aupee Karim also believes that people tend to imitate what they see in the media. “And because I believe I have a social commitment, I have to think twice about the roles I do, which sometimes limits my versatility.”

But Karim does not see the portrayal of women in the media as being negative. “I don't think women are belittled in the media,” she says. “They're performing very well, in everything from acting and presenting to singing and dancing.”

“Sometimes,” says Karim, “the story demands that the woman act as a weak character. For example, wife-battery. This is a real issue and it must be shown and then countered. Or if the story is on education for women, first you have to show that the woman is not educated and then you must show her getting an education.”

“Women must prove themselves and make their place,” says Karim. “The media won't do it for you. It's not enough to demand your rights. You have to win them by proving your talent and ability.”

Popular actor-director Afzal Hossain believes that things have changed for the better over the years. “Before, we used to look at women as women, as a member of the opposite sex,” says Hossain. “Now we look at them as friends, colleagues, as people.”

“Change has taken place and it will continue to do so, but gradually,” says Hossain, “you can't rush it.”

The sometimes-negative portrayal of women in the media is not only the media's fault, claims Hossain. “Ultimately, it depends on the woman herself what she wants to do -- whether she wants to show off her looks, her dress, make-up and jewellery, or whether she wants to show her brains.”

“It also depends on one's way of looking at things,” says Hossain. “Some people may have a problem with a woman being in an ad for men's shaving cream. But it's not necessarily derogatory for women. It depends on how it's made and how you look at it.”

Actor, admaker and politician Asaduzzaman Noor, however, admits that the portrayal of women in the media is not always proper.

“This is due to lack of taste, lack of knowledge and intentionally placing women as commodities, which men have been doing for centuries,” says Noor.

“Women have proven themselves in every field,” he says, “not only in the media, but also in the performing arts, the army, police. There are women doctors, architects, Justices of the High Court. This should be reflected in the media by portraying women in more positive roles and not only as cooks.”

“Always depicting women in stereotyped roles may lead women in society to think that this is life and they may come to accept this as the way things are. But it's not,” says Noor. “No one should sit around at home and do nothing. Women should simply ignore negative portrayals in the media, and admakers and other media persons should act more responsibly with regards to the content they produce.”

Noor believes that women are playing a very positive and growing role in society which should be reflected in the media while their dignity, honour and prestige is maintained. “Women were not born only to cook and they should not be shown as commodities,” says Noor. “More opportunities need to be made for them but men may not help out as they may feel threatened. They may think, who will cook for them if their women are out working? It's no use seeking men's sympathy; women must fight for their own rights.”


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